Sunday, January 23, 2011
Freddie & Hootie, Off Into the Sunset
I knew that if I wore my Zenyatta baseball cap on the street long enough, it would pay off. For months, during my daily three-mile walks, I wore the cap with virtually no reaction--one time a passing man and his two daughters made a comment, but that was all. I complained about Zenyatta being off the radar away from the race track. But then the Friday after Zenyatta was named Horse of the Year, it happened. "Zenyatta!" a man walking in the opposite direction shouted a few steps past me. We were near the post office. I turned around and there was Freddie Wilson. We were both wearing Zenyatta caps, but were hardly mirror images. His was all black, with a circled white "Z" in the center; mine was Hollywood Park-issue, black with the stable colors of green and pink. The wearer of the other cap had been Zenyatta's pony boy, and in Wilson's case, never was that term more of a misnomer. Freddie was on his way to a bus stop, I was en route to the post office, to check out the rumor that there was a sale on the 44s.
The next day I called Wilson, whose face resembles a relief map of the Himalayas. I asked him how old he was, and when he said 69, I almost dropped my pen. But then later I read someplace where Steve Willard, Zenyatta's exercise rider, said that Wilson "has been 69 for some time." I was relieved.
In the early days, before Zenyatta made her first start about five weeks before she turned four, Wilson got on her a few times. He remembers the time he was to dismount her after he had ridden her into her stall at Hollywood Park. "I jumped off," he said, "and there was a slick spot that made the straw unlevel underneath me. It was like grease. I slid out like I was going to hit the wall. I held the saddle when I dismounted after that. It made it a little easier."
Wilson's retirement, no matter what his real age, marks at least 60 years in the game. When he was nine, he was riding match races in Culver City, where they also made a lot of movies. Wilson moved on to a number of bush tracks, where they didn't keep records and payouts were made just as soon as you dismounted past the finish line. He grew in all directions, taking the option of becoming a full-fledged jockey away from him, but never left the track. He was training a small string of horses before joining the Zenyatta band.
He watched on TV as Zenyatta's outvoting of Blame was announced at the Horse of the Year soiree. "It was about time," Wilson said. "She got robbed of it, the previous year. I've been out there 60 years, and I'm extra prejudiced, but she's the greatest I've ever thrown a leg over, and during my time I'd say I've galloped half the good horses in California."
Wilson remembers Zenyatta as being big from the beginning. She might have come to Shirreffs a $60,000 auction buy, a piddling price in the scheme of things, but her appearance presaged greatness. "You could tell that she could be something special," Wilson said. "It was just a question of holding her together. Big horses like that, usually their legs can't stand the pounding, with all the weight. Remember Forli? Forli (the sire of Forego) came from Argentina, already a champion, but he was also a monster. You could only race him a few times a year. John Shirreffs was so patient with Zenyatta. He deserves all the credit. It's going to be a long time before we see anything like her."
There are at least six different Zenyatta caps, and Wilson has them all. "What's happened to Hootie?" I asked him.
"(A horse rescue group) has him," Wilson said. "Up near Carmel. I talked to the woman there just the other day. He's got a great view of the ocean. It must be beautiful. I'm sure he'll be quite happy. I wish now that they had taken me instead."